Thursday 20 September 2018

How to be Famous - Caitlin Moran's teenage columnist Dolly Wilde is bigger, brighter and brasher

Fiction: How to be Famous, Caitlin Moran, Ebury, paperback, 320 pages, €16

Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran How To Be Famous

Caitlin Moran returns with the hotly anticipated follow-up to How to Build a Girl. TANYA SWEENEY finds the inimitable teenage columnist Dolly Wilde bigger, brighter and brasher than ever

At the outset of her third novel, Caitlin Moran is at pains to let the reader know that How to be Famous is a work of fiction.

"Real musicians and places appear from time to time, but everything else, the characters, what they do and what they say, are products of my imagination. This is a novel and it is all fictitious."

Usually, it's wearisome to insist that the characters written by female authors are barely concealed ciphers for the women who create them. To do so is boring and insulting, insinuating as it does that female authors can't construct a decent character from the ground up without resorting to their own inner lives. All that said, the parallels between Moran and her character Dolly Wilde (Johanna Morrigan to her mum) are hard to ignore.

Like Moran, Wilde moved from a Wolverhampton council estate to London as an ebullient and sartorially cavalier teenager, where she soon became an enfant terrible of the media scene with her own broadsheet column. Where once Moran worked for indie weekly Melody Maker, Wilde cut her teeth on D&ME which, if you were around in 1995, sounds an awful lot like another great indie bible.

In this book's predecessor, How to Build a Girl, Wilde cut her teeth as a neophyte on Camden's fizzing Britpop scene. She was as dazzling as she was dazzled, getting up the noses of her (male) elders with her precociousness. She became friends with the enigmatic singer John Kite, developing something of a crippling crush on him.

In How to be Famous, Moran's affection for Wilde appears to run even deeper. With a toehold on London, Wilde - now 19 - leaves behind the misogyny of D&ME when they run a hack job on John Kite, and lands a column in The Face, the first of which is a rabble-rouser about a teenage girl's right to be a groupie.

"Why can't a teenage girl be ambitious with whom she wishes to sex with?" asks Wilde. "Why can't she shoot, literally, for the stars? Why is it the good option for me to have sex with some inexperienced, nervy, trigger-happy, warty-fingered Herbert I've known since I was 11, and who is likely to turn up at school the next day and act like Danny Zuko in the opening act of Grease?" Well, quite.

John Kite, meanwhile, has gone from troubled troubadour to full-blown, Top 20-bothering heartthrob.

On checking his bank balance and finding he has earned himself a seven-figure sum, he's on a mission to rid himself of his millions by tooting as much coke, popping as many pills and slugging as much champagne as he can manage. It's to Moran's credit that even amid his own hara-kiri, he remains likeable, a figure to root for.

Into Wilde's life, the inimitable Suzanne Banks falls. Every 19-year-old has met her kind. Part trust-fund baby, part visionary, Suzanne is as outlandish and outspoken as Courtney Love or Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna. Banks is an indie goddess-in-waiting, though she's never in doubt of her impending fame and heroism. As Courtney Love once did in a real-life interview with Moran, Banks intones at Wilde, somewhat tactlessly, 'EAT LESS CHEESE!' Now rubbing shoulders with the legitimately famous, Wilde makes clever note of what she has learned in two years of interacting with them.

"Famous people don't have coats," she observes. "Famous people know all the other famous people. If you make a joke, they won't laugh. Ever."

Wilde is still in love with Kite - and boy, does she get some brilliantly overblown prose out of the crush - but has distracted herself with Jerry Sharp, a famous rock'n'roll comedian with a reported fondness for The Smiths; the type who have been given a TV series which looks as though it's been shot in their grotty flat.

Sharp appears to epitomise any number of the comedy 'rock stars' of the 1990s, yet he is a particularly malevolent sleaze; exactly the sort of man women in 2018 will shudder about while thinking of their own #MeToo encounters.

As Wilde's new friend Suzanne notes: "Some men are into… making girls feel small. Shrinking girls. They huff their vaporising confidence like cocaine."

An encounter with him leaves Wilde in no doubt about what it's like to be (in)famous, and her revenge ploy results in a brilliant, shocking denouement.

Add in a rogue's gallery of brilliant minor characters - indie record label boss Zee, Dolly's brother Krissi, her hopelessly dysfunctional father - and Wilde's hedonistic world genuinely pogos from the page. Smoking indoors, the sadly departed Astoria, the Good Mixer, Blur in the launderettes in Camden - few writers bring the topography of 1990s London to life with quite as much élan and affection as Moran.

And yet there's another level of astuteness to Moran's writing; specifically, her understanding of female music fandom, teenage sexuality, friendship, identity politics and the vagaries of fame. Moran quite literally wrote the book on 21st-century feminism (2011's How to be a Woman), yet she is aware that, for all Wilde's exuberances and wit, the youngster is finding her feet in a world that's far from woke.

The occasionally salty Wilde is not to everyone's taste, mind. Some readers may find her vivid musings on masturbation and deflowering virgins as particularly outré (one reviewer observed, perhaps unfairly, how "Love Island fans will lap up this sweary novel").

Yet it's hard to contest that Dolly Wilde is the most vivid and unforgettable of heroines. She takes no prisoners and befalls all the necessary.

She is perfectly fleshed out with feelings and doubts and urges that most 19-year-olds can relate to.

Whether it's because Moran has found her from deep within is barely the point. Either way, she has built a girl - the best kind of girl - from the ground up.

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